You know that you’re in a golf-loving town when the principal watering hole is called Mulligans. And it was in Mulligans, after a memorable round on Pinehurst’s magical No 8 course, that one of my playing partners uttered a phrase that the eponymous Irishman himself would have been proud of. Looking at me with a seriousness that belied the half-dozen Michelobs he’d just consumed, Douglas said: “The number one course, of course, is the No 2 course.” It was a highlight in a week of highlights.
But I’m jumping ahead. Let’s go back a few days and innumerable Michelobs to Wilmington, a quaint river-front town rich in colonial charm on North Carolina’s Atlantic coast. Halfway down America’s eastern seaboard, the Cape Fear Coast, as its known, attracts northerners escaping the worst of the winter cold and southerners avoiding the extreme summer heat.
Go with the Flow
The Intracoastal Waterway runs parallel to the coast, flows through Wilmington and serves as a conduit for this twice-yearly migration. When I was there the aquatic traffic was steaming south to winter in the warm waters of the Caribbean. In October, the flow is reversed.
The British have been here before, but left rather hurriedly in 1781. Since then, of course, we and the Americans have become the best of buddies, most notably in the Second World War. Although a peaceable person by nature, I would highly recommend a visit to the battleship North Carolina, which lies anchored on the Cape Fear River. Extremely active in the Pacific in World War Two, she has been beautifully restored and a stroll above and below decks gives the visitor a fascinating insight into what life on board must have been like – noisy, cramped and frightening.
Waist Deep in Waste Bunkers
Her 16=inch guns could fire a projectile weighing 2700 pounds over 21 miles, which put into perspective my inability to carry 80 yards of water with a pitching wedge at the nearby Porters Neck Plantation and Country Club that same day. Designed by Tom Fazio, it is easy to see why it has been voted North Carolina’s top coastal course and selected as a venue for the USPGA qualifying school. Its generous fairways encourage you to open the shoulders, but there are plenty of hazards to catch the wayward shot.
As I was later to learn to my cost, waste bunkers are quite a common feature in North Carolina. The plethora of plants growing in them lets you know what they are, and – here’s the good news – allows you to ground your club. Hardly a huge bonus when your ball’s nestling in six foot of pampas grass, but a modest concession nonetheless.
Another common characteristic amongst courses in North Carolina that I would come to appreciate is the absence of any serious rough. A sensible ploy designed, I suspect, to speed up play by eliminating time consuming searches. Instead, the courses’ integrity is protected by numerous bunkers, ponds, lakes and treacherously fast greens.
However well or badly you play, be sure to dine out after at one of the many great fish restaurants in the area. If you fancy feeding afloat, there’s an elegant riverboat called Henrietta III that takes you on a three-hour dinner trip up and down the river.
North v South, a Civil War of Sorts
Sunset Beach is a modest, one-hour, drive down Highway 17. We’re now getting dangerously close to the border with South Carolina – Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Kiawah Island and all that. Neighbours, just like siblings, can develop an intense rivalry and South Carolina’s undoubted success in attracting golfing tourists is encouraging North Carolina to intensify its own efforts to sell itself more effectively as an outstanding destination.
The facilities and quality of the courses at Ocean Ridge Plantation certainly bear comparison with anything, anywhere. Like so many similar developments right across America, a whole community has been built around golf. Beautiful homes, magnificent facilities and strict security combine to create a superb country club environment. Fortunately, only a very few are so exclusive that they don’t welcome visitors.
At Ocean Ridge, the welcome was so effusive it was almost overwhelming. The gentleman whose job it is to greet guests as they step out of their cars shook my hand three times as he repeatedly urged me to enjoy my day. Indeed, in such a glorious setting it would have been hard not to.
There’s a feline theme to the three courses at Ocean Ridge – Lion’s Paw, Panther’s Run and Tiger’s Eye. The last named is, as it were, the cat’s whiskers – a simply stunning creation of Tim Cate’s that induces an audible “wow” from those who first catch sight of its pine-lined fairways radiating uphill likes spokes in a wheel from the clubhouse hub.
Watch Out for Alligators
The views are equally spectacular from almost anywhere on the course itself, especially the loftier locations. Water contributes enormously to the visual variety. There are ponds, lakes, waterfalls, fountains, marshes and a creek to both please the eye and test the nerve. These features also contribute to the abundant wildlife, which includes alligators.
You know you’re struggling to find fault with a course when the only criticism you can come up with is that’s it’s quite difficult to push the peg in on some of the tees. That problem was blamed on a remarkably dry spell of weather. Although quite a while ago, another discordant note was struck by the legal representatives of a moderately successful pro who objected to the name ‘Tiger’s Eye’. Allegedly, they backed off when it was pointed out that the name had been registered long before their man burst onto the scene.
After another delicious fish dinner there followed another day, another plantation and another three courses. Also on Sunset Beach, and not very far from Ocean Ridge, is Seatrail. Opened in 1990, the Rees Jones course is the newest and, once again, there’s no shortage of water features.
The fifth looks alarmingly like the 17th at Sawgrass; no modern course, it seems, is complete nowadays without a bowel-loosening, nowhere-to-bale-out par three over water to an island green. It has to be said, however, that they are fun, keep frogmen busy, cut down on fairway maintenance and boost ball sales.
One novel feature of the course is the uncut areas on what one might otherwise describe as fairway. The fact that I didn’t notice this particular characteristic until the 6th hole says a great deal about my tee shots that day. As luck would have it, the first one that almost precisely split the fairway landed on a patch of grass that hadn’t been mown. Ironically, that’s precisely what I did do… moan. Looking at some of the more extravagant examples of this art as the round progressed, I wondered if the greenkeeper had previously worked in a poodle parlour. But no, it was Mr Jones who was expressing himself.
At the 11th, he could legitimately be accused of lewdness as it didn’t require much in the way of imagination to recognise the female form in the two matching mounds just short of the green. Anyway, they were enough of an erotic distraction to induce three putts from me.
Leaving the coast the following day, I took the age-old advice to ‘go west middle-aged man’ and drove inland past trailer parks, fields of maize and innumerable Baptist churches. After a couple of hours, I stopped for a country lunch buffet at Joe’s Barbecue Kitchen in Whiteville and feasted on such ethnic delights as catfish stew, candied yams and fried okra.
Another hour or so driving and we finally rose up off the coastal plain and into the ‘heartland’ of North Carolina, eventually reaching the famed Sandhills region. The rolling, pine-covered hills must have looked a bit like home to the Scots who settled here in the 17th century. Aberdeen, St Andrews and Turnberry are amongst the familiar place names they have bequeathed to the area.
Legendary golf course architect Donald Ross is the most famous Scot around these parts. His first creation was the magnificent Pinehurst No 2, one of the world’s top ten courses. It has played host to the USPGA Championship (1936), the Ryder Cup (1951) and the US.
One Moment in Time
Open several times including last year.. Who could ever forget that ‘one moment in time’ when Payne Stewart holed that amazing putt on 18 to edge out Phil Mickelson and take the title? Behind the green stands a brass statue of Stewart with his arm outstretched and his fist clenched in triumph to commemorate both him and that extraordinary moment.
Great golf courses that have borne witness to great events exude a magic that is almost tangible. Staring at the 18th and soaking up the ambience on a balmy evening after two glasses of wine was about as close to a religious experience as an agnostic like me is ever likely to get.
But it’s not just the famed No 2 course that is spectacular; the whole Pinehurst resort reeks of class. From the framed sepia prints in the clubhouse to the elegant plus twos and long socks worn by the bellboys in the nearby Carolinas Hotel – everything is done with taste and style. And so Pinehurst’s claim to be the Home of American Golf is not an empty boast but a genuine statement of its desire to be the guardian of America’s golfing tradition.
The One with a Name
Arguably the second best course at Pinehurst is the Tom Fazio designed No 8. It’s unique in that it’s the only one of the eight that has been christened. Opened in 1995 on Pinehurst’s 100th anniversary, it’s called The Centennial. Its other great claim to fame is that it’s the only one I played.
Perhaps one of the hardest things to overcome when you’re playing a Pinehurst course is an almost paralysing sense of humility. The place is so immaculate and you’re golf manifestly isn’t. For a hole or two you feel unworthy to tread the lush turf or putt on the glorious greens. Then, when you come around to recognising that it is, after all, only grass, you stop whispering and start taking divots, and that’s when the fun begins.
You simply can’t swing if you’re in awe. Having said that, this is not an easy course but what makes it really tough are the super-slippery greens. Although not as domed as those on No 2, the target area on each is very small. What you sometimes think is a decent approach when you hit it, starts rolling inexorably away from the hole to leave you with either a massive putt or, worse still, a frightening chip. The best news is there’s no out of bounds.
A Plethora of Pines
The resort at Pinehurst is just part of a wider area that is almost entirely devoted to golf. Pinehurst, Southern Pines and Aberdeen make up Moore County, which has about four dozen golf courses. In fact it has fewer than 100 residents for every hole.
Nearby Pine Needles hosted the US Women’s Open Championship more than once and is just across the road from where I managed to squeeze in nine holes on my last day – Mid Pines (affiliated with Pine Needles). Another glorious Donald Ross creation, it provided a fitting end to a marvelous trip around North Carolina’s finest. Hospitable Southerners constantly implored: “Y’all come back now.” I certainly will, thank you.
Why We Like It
North Carolina has an astonishing range of quality courses from coastal to woodland that bear comparison with the very best. Rather less busy than South Carolina, it appeals to the discerning golfer who appreciates a touch of class. Beautiful beaches, glorious scenery and a heap of history help make it a hugely appealing destination.
While You’re There
A drive along the famed Blue Ridge Highway is as good a way as any of appreciating the super scenery North Carolina has in abundance. Alternatively, the Outer Banks along the northeast coastal corner of the state offer wonderfully quiet and isolated stretches of sandy beaches that appeal to both bathers and nature lovers. It’s from here back at the turn of the last century that Orville and Wilbur Wright took off in the first ever powered flight that was to change the course of human history.